Roads, railways and jobs

The Western Australian Planning Commission has just released its Capital City Planning Framework, which sets out how the Directions 2031 objectives will be met in a 12km by 12km area around the city centre. While not a key message of the report, one thing that struck me was two maps that it presented, one showing jobs density per hectare and the other population density per hectare.

What interested me was the noticeable employment corridors along several major roads and the conspicuous lack of employment concentrations along the inner city railways – see first map. The most glaring example of this is the dense and continuous employment corridor along Albany Highway in Victoria Park, compared with the almost total lack of employment along the Armadale line, just a few blocks away. It occurred to me that maybe the railways tend to service residential areas instead of employment centres, to link them to the CBD and other major destinations, but there isn’t an obvious increase in population density close to the railways either, as can be seen on the second map.

Job Density per Hectare

Job Density per hectare

Population Density per Hectare

Employment Density per hectare

Source: Capital City Planning Strategy, pp. 16-17 (WAPC, 2013)

I’m still not quite sure how to interpret this, but three possibilities did occur to me.

1. A lack of TODedness and the unused potential of the railways

Railway stations should have a large concentration of residents and activity within their walkable catchment. For the public transport system to be effective, it needs to link up the places people live with the places that they go. Therefore, there is a lot of unused potential in the rail network, which could be tapped by shifting towards transit-oriented development design principles, or simply increasing density around the stations.  Currently, we are simply not using the full potential of the rail network, and there is quite a bit of spare capacity still to be used.

2. Roads are actually much better activators than rail

One interpretation of the concentrations of employment around roads rather than rail is that rail simply does not generate the level of accessibility that roads do. This could be a product of the current urban form, of course.

If this were the case, then it poses the question that if a rail or light rail was added to an existing employment corridor, would it stuff it up? Would it actually reduce the level of activation along the route and drive businesses elsewhere? This runs contrary to the consensus opinion here at Pracsys, and I think among the planning and economic development community more broadly, but if roads really do stack up better against rail than we currently think, it calls into question the wisdom of expanding the network and adding in new light rail lines all over the place. This is an important policy question.

3. It’s simply a result of local zoning and other planning decisions

Perhaps there is no profound insight to be gained from this data, and it is just the result of how different areas have evolved in response to local planning and zoning decisions over time. The report identifies several of these road corridors as former tram streets, although 50 years is a long time for the city to re-shape itself if the economics of an area changes.

In conclusion, I’m not certain what to make of these results, but the way we do interpret them has significant implications for the type of city we want Perth to grow into.

Any thoughts?